Silent Spring and the diminishing returns of doomsday climate communication
by Harrison Blackman
‘In the first panel, you have Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, birds flying off in the distance, elephants, and giraffe, and a lot of religious iconography,’ the narrating Hollywood star intones, describing a painting called The Garden of Earthly Delights by the mysterious Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch. ‘The deadly sins start to infuse their way into the painting – there’s overpopulation, there’s debauchery and excess.’ The camera pans across the painting, focusing on naked humans sucking on a giant fruit. A man and woman lie intimately inside the bulb of a flower. The screen shifts, and the actor continues: ‘the last panel, which is the most nightmarish one […] is this twisted, decayed, burnt landscape, a paradise that has been degraded and destroyed.’ A bird-like demon devouring a man. People living in the hollowed-out shell of a crouching human. Demons leading men into the fires of hell – smoke, industry, and ash. Smash cut to the title credits – smokestacks, cars, floods, glaciers collapsing, wildfires – the voiceover of concerned news anchors – all of these elements swelling to an ominous score. Thanks to the narration of Leonardo DiCaprio – Bosch’s 500 year-old masterpiece has been rendered into ‘disaster porn’.
The 2016 documentary wasn’t the first climate narrative to embrace the rhetorical strategy of the parable. Another work, 54 years earlier, paved the way not through the grotesque imagery of sin, but with the telling of a spare and unforgiving fable. ‘There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings,’ began the bedrock-text of the modern environmental movement. ‘Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything changed.’ Livestock died, and so did the people. The birds stopped singing. Vegetation, fish – everything perished. What had caused this tragedy? ‘No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world,’ Rachel Carson wrote in her magnum opus, Silent Spring. ‘The people had done it themselves.’
Silent Spring catalysed the budding environmental movement of the 1960s. It effectively addressed the problem of DDT – pointing out the dangers of pesticides, offering solutions, and galvanising the public and elected leaders. Her book became a bestseller, and even President Kennedy apparently took the book’s message to heart. Ten years after its publication, the United States outlawed most uses of DDT.
Fast-forward to October 2016 as Before the Flood was released. The New York Times was quick to pour cold water over the filmEven if you subscribe to the view that a problem isn’t a problem until a Hollywood celebrity tells you it is, Before the Flood feels out of phase […] either you think climate change is real or you don’t, and the battle lines aren’t likely to be sh`ifted by an earnest movie star.' The film came and went, and the floods kept coming. A month into its release, a mere 60 million people around the world had reportedly seen the film – which might sound impressive – but in a media-saturated age, in the context of a world population of 7.4 billion, 60 million people is nothing. It’s a grain of sand in the rising ocean.
So what accounts for this apathy to the rising waters? Have we become numb to representations of climate change? Or have we become numb to Rachel Carson’s approach?
The Silent Spring paradigm
Silent Spring changed the world. It also changed the way environmentalist communicators framed their message – by pairing the eloquence of a parable with a systematic barrage of research, facts, anecdotes, and experts. While Carson followed the footsteps of previous American environmental writers, such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Muir, she was among the first to announce polemically that 'a grim spectre [had] crept upon us almost unnoticed, and this imagined tragedy [the fable with which her book opens] may easily become a stark reality we all shall know.' Starting with the parable of a silent spring in the imagined small town in America, Carson first looked at the proliferation of pesticides, and then its murderous effects in bodies of water, in plants, on animal life, on birds, on insects – and finally, on humans. Then she considered how nature develops natural resistance to these pesticides, rendering their application wasteful and frivolous – wreaking havoc on ecosystems while allowing the agricultural pests in question to emerge stronger. Through these literary and logical tactics, she made the crisis real, rather than a speculative flight of fancy. But she also offered solutions – though not many remember the other, less conventional solutions that Carson suggested. (In Silent Spring’s final chapter, ‘The Other Road’, Carson points to studies done where invasive species harming crops could be brought under control by introducing new invasive species—the natural enemies of the invasive species undesirable to humans.) Hers was a tremendously effective approach – for the problem at hand. It would seem that the mission was accomplished – and Carson had cracked the code for environmental change.
Faced with the modern issue of human-generated climate change, the next generation of environmental communicators – a group that ranges from former Vice President Al Gore, to New Yorker alumni Bill McKibben and Elizabeth Kolbert, to Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh, to, yes – Leonardo DiCaprio – all borrowed from Rachel Carson’s playbook. They foretold a future that would be unfamiliar, frightening; to avert this fate, they also offered solutions. But the solutions they identified weren’t as straightforward as Carson’s. They couldn’t be, because the threat they identified wasn’t so specific. As it turns out, responding to and limiting human impact on climate change requires more than simply banning pesticides. A lot more.
Bill McKibben said as much in his classic climate polemic, The End of Nature:
‘The grand sight I owe to Rachel Carson; had she not written when she did about the dangers of DDT, it might well have been too late before anyone cared about what was happening. She pointed out the problem; she offered a solution; the world shifted course. That is how this book should end, too. At this writing, the greenhouse effect shows every sign of emerging as an important political issue—perhaps the important political issue […] There should be a solution, and we should write our congressmen about it, and they should enact it, and then we should all get on with our lives […] but there are reasons – economic and demographic reasons but also reasons of chemistry and physics – to think such an approach won’t work so easily in this case, that a 'solution' may be difficult, verging on impossible.’
Impossible. How can you inspire people to rally around change if you admit that the feat would be impossible?
Alarmism, politics, and the erosion of trust
The theory of global warming goes all the way back to the French natural scientist Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier, who developed a proto-theory of the greenhouse effect in the 1820s. One hundred and ninety years later, after much more ‘follow-up’ research on the part of modern scientists, a majority, while not an overwhelming majority, of the American public believed in the human impact on climate change through fossil fuel emissions. In 2001, Gallup estimated that 61% of Americans believed human activities were a cause of global warming. But the erosion of trust in science and environmentalism was just about to begin.
The battle lines were drawn in 2004. That was when The Day After Tomorrow was released, a goofy, preachy climate disaster movie starring Dennis Quaid, which saw tornadoes swirl through Los Angeles and New York suffer the improbable one-two punch of a super-hurricane and the ‘inevitable’, accompanying ice age. On the flip side, that same year Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park, published State of Fear, a thriller novel that depicted global warming as a fear-mongering scam promoted by environmental groups. After the ridiculous cinematic spectacle of The Day After Tomorrow, Crichton’s book found resonance, becoming a #1 New York Times bestseller, with influence far beyond the typical airport novel. ‘When the relevant Senate committee […] convened to take testimony [in 2005],’ McKibben wrote in the introduction to a new edition of The End of Nature, ‘they didn’t summon the hurricane scientists, or the soil scientists, or the ice scientists. They asked for […] Crichton.’
Two years later, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was released, a film that galvanised liberals – and infuriated Republicans. The documentary followed the Carson playbook in that it described the greenhouse effect – the famous hockey stick graph depicting the dramatic rise in temperature over the past 200 years – and its correlation with carbon emissions; the effects of rising temperatures on the ice caps, on storms, on sea levels. It was a systematic exploration to rival Carson’s own step-by-step investigation of pesticides. The documentary’s scenes of before–after slideshows of glaciers, its depiction of Manhattan underwater, Europe frozen – its association of Hurricane Katrina as part of the trend of a warming planet – they all became famous the world over – especially after the film won two Oscars.
But there was one way An Inconvenient Truth manipulated – and in the process, botched – the Carson playbook. The parable that the film was couched in was neither a metaphor of a typical American town, nor was it the dramatic narration of a provocative Hieronymus Bosch painting. It was how the film cast all its facts and charts and scientific evidence within the frame of Al Gore’s personal climate journey, a hagiography of his political career that culminated in his climate-centric crusade. As a result, media coverage was quick to associate the issue with Gore. According to reporting by the Conversation, in 2007 Gore was featured in 17% of news stories in major American newspapers, and 23% of American network broadcasts. That’s a huge proportion of news stories for a former presidential candidate. As the Conversation summarised:
‘If you tuned in to news about climate change in that time period, you were exposed to Al Gore and his message. And even though that message was unabashedly pro-climate and for strong climate action, it likely played a role in turning Republicans against that message, since to them, Gore was simply a Democratic politician they disliked.’
Gore may have added fuel to the GOP’s fire by indirectly dismissing State of Fear, a source that many Americans highly respected. In 2007, NPR reported that Al Gore told Congress: ‘The planet has a fever. If your baby has a fever, you go to the doctor. If the doctor says you need to intervene here, you don't say, “Well, I read a science-fiction novel that tells me it's not a problem.”’
In those influential mid-2000s, there would be many articles in national media depicting climate change in grand, world-destroying terms. Alarmism was – and has been since – the central tenet of this coverage. A founding example was National Geographic’s 2004 Global Warning issue – an article that depicted bleaching oceans, rising seas, increased droughts. As recently as this August, Nathaniel Rich’s blockbuster article in the New York Times Magazine, ‘Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change’ depicted the climate movement as a tragedy, one that we can never recover from.
Meanwhile, climate change has seen some of its power diluted in popular media. An Inconvenient Sequel showcased Al Gore’s frustrated efforts to convince the world of the need to act, featuring clips of his conference calls to single–handedly bring on board India to the 2016 Paris climate accords. As the spiritual successor to The Day After Tomorrow, 2017’s Geostorm continued to render climate change a farce by casting it as a disaster–thriller featuring Gerard Butler as an engineer–astronaut. Released the same year, Darren Aronofsky’s climate allegory mother! – perhaps the cinematic equivalent to The Garden of Earthly Delights in depicting an ‘Eden’ (a house inhabited by Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence as the origin of sin, overpopulation, greed, and catastrophe) bombed at the box office and earned an 'F' from viewers on CinemaScore.
By 2010, the 61% of Americans in 2000 that believed humans had contributed to climate change had dropped to just 50%. In 2018, Gallup reported that the number rebounded, and exceeded the 2000 measurement – 68% of Americans now believe in human-caused global warming. But how much damage – the erosion of trust in science and the media – had been done in the meantime?
Clearly, something had happened during those years. Had Gore inadvertently politicised the issue? Or was it something inherent in the Carson approach?
Purveyors of the new positive climate-spin
Following the discouraging financial returns and vocal pushback against his climate parable-film mother!, Darren Aronofsky worked on a nature documentary series for Natural Geographic called One Strange Rock. In several interviews on film sites, journalists compared the alarmist tone of mother! with the comparatively optimistic One Strange Rock, which nests dazzling visual explainers of climate processes through interviews of astronauts and upbeat narration by Will Smith. ‘We wanted to do something that was filled with hope but also that showed how precious it is, this planet,’ Aronofsky told IndieWire. ‘It was a different way of showing this story, the same story, it’s a very complicated system.’
Aronofsky wasn’t the only creator who has pivoted – infusing his climate media with a dose of optimism in the hope of connecting with audiences where alarmism has failed. Take Elizabeth Kolbert in her 2014 creative nonfiction bestseller, The Sixth Extinction, which won the Pulitzer Prize. At first tracing the history of the idea of extinction and then exploring the ways human activity has historically ended charismatic species like the great auk, and subsequently covering the contemporary extinction of many rainforest and ocean species – Kolbert took a few pages to consider a positive spin on the dismal state of things.
Discussing the successful impact of Silent Spring on saving the bald eagle, and the Endangered Species Act inciting activists to go to absurd lengths to save the California Condor (such as building fake power lines to train the birds not to land on them), Kolbert offered the potential benefit of an attitude shift: ‘Wouldn’t it be better, practically and ethically, to focus on what can be done and is being done to save species, rather than speculate gloomily about a future in which the biosphere is reduced to little plastic vials? The director of a conservation group in Alaska once put it to me this way: “People have to have hope. I have to have hope. It’s what keeps us going.”’
There’s hope, and then there’s fatalism. Take Peter Brannen, whose 2016 book The Ends of the World discussed the great extinction events of earth history before anticipating the warmer fate lurking around the corner. Recounting his mother’s optimism, even in the face of her own fatal illness, he claimed that, at first, given the world’s political and social turmoil, avoiding human extinction in the near future seemed impossible. But then, in a baffling rhetorical move, Brannen contradicted himself. He described visiting a pleasant beach in Santa Cruz, where he had an epiphany: ‘The waves came in and went out, as they always have. I don’t know why, but I believed my mom; all shall be well.’
These ‘positive’ spins, or fatalist twists of perspective, especially in Brannen’s case – are yet another attempt to mimic the rhetorical move Carson made when she advocated for ‘the other road’ in the pesticides issue. A path toward a future worth living in.
But this approach is disingenuous. Unlike Carson’s time, we cannot merely stop using pesticides. Banning pesticides is a lot easier than banning cars. Than halting beef production. Than dissuading developing countries like India from adopting Euro-American levels of consumption. We have to radically change the world economy. If we are to survive as a species, perhaps we can’t even have an economy in the sense that we understand it today. And to make matters, yes, worse – these environmental consequences, while fantastic and often unbelievable – are real.
In essence, this is the heart of the problem climate communicators face. So often has the doomsday bell been rung that it can no longer be widely believed. But when ringing the doomsday bell is an accurate representation of the truth and no longer hyperbole – is it possible to persuade others of the need for change?
Leaving Silent Spring’s shadow
The Silent Spring model has lost its ability to inspire change as dramatically as its original text once described. The problems we face as a species are far too massive to be solved with a particular argumentative approach in a single, call-to-arms text. But as we try to find a way to move beyond the Silent Spring paradigm, we cannot forget what was so effective in Carson’s book, and what was ineffective about its successors. Any list is inherently reductive, but at the very least, this can get us started:
1. Avoid unnecessary politicising. (Here’s looking at you, Mr. Gore!)
2. Melodramatic disaster movies like The Day After Tomorrow have made things seem ridiculous. A balance must be struck between doomsday prophecies and the rhetoric of the cold, computer projection.
3. Optimism is a double-edged sword. It can seem necessary, if one is to inspire change, but it can also be read as a bald-faced lie. A pragmatic, realist tone is in order.
4. The connection must be made with average people, their current lives, and what about those lives is specifically under threat. The stakes must be made clear, and vividly real for those on the ground.
5. Like Carson did so many years ago, we need to wake people up. We need to see what we’re losing – which is everything.
Illustration by Jasmine Yang
Harrison Blackman is an MFA student in fiction at the University of Nevada, Reno. He is currently writing a thriller novel about climate communication.